Trust. It is a word often heard when senior defense officials from China and the United States get together for their high-profile talks. But analysts say, after three decades of an on-off relationship, as with any marriage of convenience trust can be a fragile thing.
The two countries wrapped up their 10th round of Defense Consultative Talks (DCT) yesterday, their first chance to kiss and make up since the suspension of military ties by China over the proposed US sale of arms to Taiwan.
It was hailed a success by both parties, but experts say there is still a long way to go before military relations reach a level of mutual trust.
"Some say China and the US militaries are like a couple stuck in an marriage, one in which they both have to guess what each other is up to behind their backs," said Professor Sun Zhe, director of the center for Sino-US relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "But I disagree. If fact, they are nothing like a couple. They still cannot fully trust each other."
It has been 30 years since China established military ties with the US and, today, they cooperate extensively on issues such as the Korean Peninsula and climate change.
"The Cold War mentality", a commonly used phrase in English and Chinese, still lingers as a clear reminder of the differences between the nations' militaries and ideologies, analysts and netizens say.
"The US military not treating China as an enemy? I do not believe it," wrote a netizen tagged Seeing Through One Eye on Sina.com, a popular Web portal, yesterday. "The US military will never like the idea of having a competitor like China."
Wang Fan, an expert on international security with China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, said: "China's defense has always been defensive, but more often than not the idea simply does not get through to the Americans, who doubt the actual capabilities and strategic goals of the Chinese armed forces."
The relationship between the US and Chinese armed forces has been hampered by a "reality gap", according to Teng Jianqun, a strategy researcher with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.
"Many thinkers in the US still hold the outdated impressions of China's military development, which has in fact transformed beyond their imagination," he said.
But Adam Segal, of the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, said that, although China's behavior may be confusing, it should not be a surprise, and added it had good reason to keep the US in the dark about its intimate plans.
"The Chinese see themselves as the weaker power. And they believe that for weaker powers, a certain degree of opaqueness makes a great deal of sense strategically, right?" he told National Public Radio. "You don't want the larger power to know what you do or don't have, or what you are or are not capable of."
The latest two-day DCT in Beijing set a new agenda on improving communication and thawing relations at a military level. And although many experts see the talks as helpful, they feel China and the US can still cooperate in many areas as strategic partners even without mutual trust.
"The two nations are like two medieval knights that respect each other and can even work hand in hand to save the women and children around them. But they know they remain competitors," Sun told China Daily.
The nation's histories have yielded many examples when the level of the "trust thermometer" has risen to warm and plunged to freezing.
They were joined by a common vision in the early 1970s, when, as China's relationship with the then Soviet Union was deteriorating, the US saw a prime opportunity to build bridges between the East and West.
That trust in each other's military and strategic aims helped with the setting up of links between top defense officials on both sides, as well as consultation channels on maritime and disarmament issues.
But the trust has been marred along the way by political and diplomatic disagreements, which have led to military exchanges being suspended five times in three decades.
"The distrust between the militaries often results in political, economic or diplomatic pressure for both China and the US," said Tao Wenzhao, a senior expert on US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "But stern actions often lead to nothing. The two nations still need a open, candid and frank channel on the road to military mutual trust."
The fear that still exists for many in the US is evident. Ike Skelton, a US Democrat congressman who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, even aired his concerns in late March about "some of the continuing trends and ambiguities regarding China's military modernization, including its missile buildup across from Taiwan and the steady increase of its power projection capabilities."
But Wang Fan warned it would be a big mistake if China and the US allowed a lack of trust to deadlock their burgeoning relationship.